Heroes and Heroines

When I first applied for the Fulbright, I didn’t know a single person from Uganda. I had heard about the destruction caused by the civil war between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, but I had never met the heroes and heroines who lived through the war, witnessed the conflict, and fought for peace—until now.

Meet Sandra and Patrick, two students who were born in Gulu during the height of conflict. Many of their classmates were kidnapped by the LRA and forcibly conscripted as child soldiers and the wives of LRA leaders. For thousands of children, it was a horrible fate and one that Sandra and Patrick avoided by leaving their homes every night and sleeping in the Gulu city center.

I met Sandra and Patrick at an Invisible Children event in Gulu.

I met Sandra and Patrick at an Invisible Children event in Gulu.

“Every night, you couldn’t sleep at home,” Sandra told me. “You maybe had to go to a school or a hospital—somewhere that was safe.”

For ten years, every single night, Sandra and Patrick joined thousands of children who slept in front of hospitals, schools, and shops. Without bicycles or any other form of transportation, they walked for miles and could only snag a few hours of wakeful sleep, but this plight was still preferable to being captured by the LRA.

Six years later, the LRA has fled Uganda and Sandra and Patrick live in a safer, happier place, but their families are still vulnerable to poverty and post-conflict turmoil. As thousands of people return to their villages and confront squatters who have taken over their ancestral farms, land disputes have flared up across Northern Uganda. Meanwhile, many of the NGOs that flocked to Gulu at the height of the civil war have left, taking most of the aid money with them.

In this subsequent vacuum, people are wondering how development will occur. Will people return to their farms and revert to subsistence agriculture (which is what most of them are doing), or will the manufacturing and service sectors grow to provide middle-class jobs? People yearn for a brighter future, yet the economic outlook remains bleak and many residents still rely heavily on NGOs and foreign aid, including Sandra and Patrick. They both have a Legacy Scholarship from Invisible Children, the NGO behind Kony 2012, which pays for them to go to high school and college.

Invisible Children has been heavily criticized by international observers for its militaristic and one-sided approach to Joseph Kony and the LRA, so I visited their office yesterday to see what they’re doing on the ground. I will save most of my thoughts and observations on Invisible Children for an article I hope to get published, but my overall impression is that they are doing solid work on the ground in Gulu. That doesn’t excuse some of their broader mistakes—like blatantly ignoring human rights violations by the Ugandan military (UPDF)—but it is comforting to know that some of the money my friends spent on Kony 2012 t-shirts in the United States has gone to help children like Sandra and Patrick. They are now bright, confident teenagers who are able to attend high school and college at Invisible Children’s expense. Sandra hopes to use her education to become a doctor; Patrick wants to become an engineer.

Apart from my experiences with Invisible Children, I was also able to interview seven journalists this week who reported on the conflict with the LRA. I have always thought highly of international correspondents who risk their lives to report on peace and conflict. Christiane Amanpour, who flies into Afghanistan to interview American soldiers, reporters from Al-Jazeera, who bring their cameras to Tahrir Square, and journalists from the New York Times, who sneak into Syria to report on the brutal civil war.

While these journalists are incredibly brave, I think it takes even more courage to be a journalist who lives in the community where conflict occurs. These journalists can’t hop on a plane and flee the country, they aren’t protected by foreign passports, and the people they care about—friends and family members—are the subjects of their stories who are killed and kidnapped.

One man I met wrote his first article for the Daily Monitor in high school. He was fifteen years old and a UPDF soldier in his village had a nervous breakdown and started murdering his neighbors. This man didn’t cover the story because he wanted to become a journalist or get his name on the front page—he wrote it because no one else would. In a remote village in Northern Uganda, his pen was a powerful juxtaposition to the carnage of war. He felt that these stories needed to be heard, that the rest of the country needed to know what was happening in Northern Uganda, so he devoted every day of the next fifteen years to reporting on the civil war with the LRA.

This journalist risked his life to travel to the front lines, barely survived when a vehicle he was riding in hit a landmine, and almost died when he crashed in a military helicopter. He was arrested several times for being too critical of the UPDF and he only earned a few dollars for every article he wrote, but he kept on writing and telling the stories that needed to be heard.

This man, along with the other journalists I have met this week, has taught me how important this project really is. I chose to research the intersection between the media and the military because it interests me, but to the people in Northern Uganda, this relationship is vital to ensuring peace and security.

Another journalist I met, who also traveled with the UPDF almost every day for eight years, quit the profession when she wrote a story that was never published. She received a tip from a source that a village in Northern Uganda was vulnerable to attack and that an assault from the LRA might be imminent. She wrote an article and sent it to her editor, but the publication didn’t have space to print it. Because an attack hadn’t actually occurred, the editor decided that it wasn’t a priority. The next day, this woman called her editor, but once again, he decided to hold the story. The following night, in a brutal and bloody attack, a hundred people in that village were killed by the LRA.

The journalist never wrote another story nor spoke with her editor ever again. She knew that if the story had been published, officers in the UPDF would have read it and deployed more troops to protect the village.

During the height of the civil war, news articles could make the difference between life and death. Journalists exposed atrocities, encouraged peace, and pointed out weaknesses and vulnerabilities to promote security and protect civilians.

Even now, as Northern Uganda faces numerous challenges for reconciliation and development, journalists are at the forefront of societal change. I befriended two journalists this week who work for the Red Pepper, Uganda’s trashiest tabloid. I never had much respect for this publication until I met these two journalists. Apart from writing stories on sex and scandals (which they frequently do), they have also embarked on a campaign to improve Gulu’s hospitals. They go to clinics and document the problems they see: staffing shortages, low pay, no medicine, and people sleeping on the floor because there aren’t enough beds.

Eventually, these journalists wrote so many articles about the dismal state of the hospitals in Northern Uganda that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) came in and donated tens of thousands of dollars to improve the capacity and infrastructure of the Gulu Referral Hospital. Many Gulu residents still avoid these Red Pepper journalists (“snoop tigers” they call them), but there is little doubt that their writing has made their community a better place.

This week has strengthened my belief that journalism matters and that the stories journalists write have real and tangible effects on people’s lives. I am motivated now more than ever to finish this project, because for people like Sandra and Patrick, the relationship between the media and the military is very, very important.

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